|The Log of Mystic Seaport: Four Essays|
in Honolulu -- No. 9 Sad Accident
". . . it warn't no use; he'd everything drawing and I had considerable sternway, and he just struck me a little abaft the beam, and down I went head on, and skunned my elbow!"
Mark Twain (1835-1910), ca. 1882. Engraving by T. Cole from a portrait by Abbot Thayer.
In March 1866, Samuel Langhorne Clemens arrived in Honolulu aboard the steamship Ajax. At age 31, Clemens had already had a varied career, and was now embarked on a new one under the pen name Mark Twain.
Born in Missouri, the son of an eternally optimistic land speculator, Clemens spent most of his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri, along the Mississippi River. Apprenticed to a printer, he became a voracious reader and began to contribute pieces to the newspaper edited by his older brother. He also traveled through the East, supporting himself as a journeyman printer. Although he had little formal education, he became a student of the Mississippi River and its people, and apprenticed himself to a steamboat pilot in 1857. The Civil War ended his river career.
After sampling military life, Clemens went west to Nevada as his brother's secretary. He settled at Virginia City in the Washoe mining district, where he failed as a miner but succeeded as a reporter for the local newspaper. Styling himself Mark Twain (two fathoms to the river pilot), he wrote with a broad, biting, and topical wit that appealed to frontier readers. In 1864 he moved on to California where, influenced by the style of Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, he continued to write. When his "Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" was published in newspapers throughout the country in 1865, he became a local celebrity.
The urbane Sacramento Daily Union added him to its flock of roving correspondents and sent him to the Sandwich Islands in 1866. One of his missions was to determine why Honolulu was more successful than San Francisco as a whaling port. Among his fellow passengers aboard the Ajax were three New London whaling captains, James Smith, William H. Phillips, and Asa W. Fish, whose gruff humor and distinctive language fascinated Twain. In his second letter, published in the 17 April 1866 issue of the Daily Union, Twain recorded Captain Phillips's upbraiding of him when he made a bad play at euchre: "Ger-reat Scotland! what in the nation you dumpin' that blubber at such a time as this for? Rip! I knowed it! took with a nine spot! royals, stuns'ls -everything, gone to smash, and nobody euchred!"
In an attempt to capture the whalers' characteristic style of speaking, as well as to delineate the rampant exploitation in the whaling industry, Twain composed the following letter, which was published in the Daily Union on 22 May 1866. As well as being an only slightly exaggerated parody and indictment of the whaling industry, it is an early example of the style that Twain would perfect in his later works, which have since become classics of American literature. - ed.
Honolulu, April 1866
I have just met an estimable lady--Mrs. Captain Jollopson, whose husband (with her assistance) commands the whaling bark Lucretia Wilkerson--and she said:
"The wharf--gauging oil", by David H. Strother, depicts a New Bedford whaling wharf covered with casks of whale oil. The men in the foreground gauge the size of casks and measure the quantity of oil within--from which the agents could calculate "leaking and shrinkage" to their advantage.
"Oh, I've never had such a time of it! I'm clean out of luck, I do believe. The wind's been dead ahead with me all this day. It appears to me that I can't do no way but that it comes out wrong. First, I turned out this morning and says I, 'Here's a go--eight bells and no duff yet! I just know it's going to blow great guns for me to-day.' And so it's come out. Start fair, sail fair; otherwise, just the reverse. Well, I hove on my dress and cleared for the market, and took the big basket, which I don't do when I'm alone, because I'm on the short lay when it comes to eating; but when the old man's in port, it's different, you know, and I go fixed when I recruit for him--never come back in ballast then, because he's on the long lay, and it's expensive too; you can depend on it, his leakage and shrinkage shows up on his home bills when he goes out of port, and it's all on account of recruiting, too--though he says it's on account of toggery for me, which is a likely yarn, when I can't even buy a set of new halliards for my bonnet but he growls, and what few slops I do have I've got to smuggle 'em; and yet, bless you, if we were to ship 'em the freight on mine wouldn't pay primage on his--but where was I? Oh, yes--I hove on my dress and hove down toward the market, and while I was laying off and on before the Post Office, here comes a shipkeeper round the corner three sheets in the wind and his dead-lights stove in, and I see by the way he was bulling that if he didn't sheer off and shorten sail he'd foul my larboard stuns'l-boom, which I had my basket on--because, you see, he'd been among his friends having a bit of a gam, and had got about one fid too much aboard, and his judgment had fetched away in the meantime, and so he steered bad, and was making latitude all the time when he ought to been making longitude, and here he was to wind'ard of me, but making so much leeway that - well, you see how it was. I backed off fast as I could, and sung out to him to port his helm, but it warn't no use; he'd everything drawing and I had considerable sternway, and he just struck me a little abaft the beam, and down I went, head on, and skunned my elbow!" I said, "Bless my life!" And she said, "Well you may say it! My! such a jolt! It started everything. It's worse'n being pulled! I shouldn't wonder if I'd have to be hove down--" and then she spread her hand alongside of her mouth and sung out, "Susy, ahoy!" to another woman, who rounded to to wait for her, and the two fell off before the wind and sailed away together.
Eight bells stands for the closing of a watch--two to an hour, four hours to a watch, six watches in a day--on board ship.
Duff is Jack Tar's dessert--a sort of dough, with dried apples or something of the kind in it on extra occasions.
Cleared for the market--A ship "clears" for her voyage when she takes out her papers at the Custom-house.
Short lay and long lay--These phrases are confined to the whaling interest. Neither the officers nor men get any wages on a whaleship, but receive, instead, a proportion of all the bone and oil taken; Jack usually gets about the one-hundred-and-twentieth part of all the "catch" (or profits of the voyage), for his share, and this is called a "long lay"; the Captain generally gets a tenth, twelfth or fourteenth, which is a "short lay," and the other officers in proportion. Some Captains also have perquisites besides their "lay"--a dollar or more on every barrel of the "catch," over a certain number. The luckiest Captain of the lot made $50,000 last season. Very good for a few months work. When a ship is ready to sail and must suddenly supply the place of some seaman who has fallen sick, candidates will take advantage of the circumstances and demand as short a "lay" as a second mate's to ship as the last man and complete the crew. I am informed (but I do not believe it), that this is termed the "Lay of the Last Minstrel."
Recruit--The whaling voyage to the North Seas occupies about seven months; then the vessel returns to Honolulu, tranships her oil to the States, refits and goes over to the coast of California about November or December, to put in her idle time catching hump-back whales or devilfish [California grey whales], returning here along in March and April to "recruit"--that is, procure vegetables, and especially potatoes, which are a protective against scurvy, and give the men a few days run on shore, and then off for the north again as early in the Spring as possible. Those vessels which do not consider the coast fishing profitable, because of the "stoving" of boats by the savage hump-backs and the consequent loss of men and material, go to "west'ard," as they term going down to the line after sperm whales; and when they have finished this "between season," they go over and "recruit" at Japan, and from thence proceed directly north.
Leakage and Shrinkage--When a whaler returns here with her cargo, the United States Consul estimates its probable value in the East, and buys the interests of the officers and men on behalf of the owners of the ship, and pays for the same in gold. To secure the shipowner against loss, a bill of contingencies is brought against poor Jack by the Consul (leakage and shrinkage being among the items), which reduces the profits of his long voyage about one-half or two-thirds. For instance, take the case of the whaling bark ________ last year. The Consul considered oil to be worth between one dollar and seventy-five cents and two dollars a gallon (in greenbacks) in the States; he put it down at one dollar and seventy-five cents to be on the safe side, and then reduced as follows:
First--Premium to be paid for money, and difference between gold and paper--so much. (Jack must be paid in gold.)
Second--An allowance of eight per cent. for probable leakage and shrinkage of the oil on its homeward voyage.
Third--Freight on the homeward voyage paid by Jack.
Fourth--Interest and insurance on the cargo hence to the States--paid by Jack.
Fifth--Commission of the owner at home (21/2 per cent.) for selling the cargo--paid by Jack.
And after all these reductions, what do you suppose the Consul paid Jack for his one hundred and twentieth "lay" in a cargo of oil worth over $1.75 a gallon at home? He paid him seventy-four cents a gallon. As a general thing, the ship-owner at home makes a princely profit out of this "gouging' of the sailor-man; but instances have occurred--rarely, however--where the price set by the Consul here was so much above the real value of the oil at home, that all the gouging was not sufficient to save the ship-owner from loss.
"Returning in tow," David H. Strother's caricature of a Martha's Vineyard couple could represent a seagoing pair.
Home Bills--It makes no difference how much money a sailor brings into port, he is soon head over heels in debt. In order to secure his services on a voyage, the ship is obliged to assume this indebtedness. The item is entered against Jack on the ship's books at the home port in the East as his "home bill." If the voyage proves lucky, the ship gets even on Jack's home bill by subtracting it from his "lay"; but if she takes no oil she must pay the bill anyhow, and is "out and injured," of course. These "home bills" are first assumed by one of the professional "sharks" in New Bedford and New London who furnish crews to ships; say Jack owes fifty dollars; the shark enters his name for a voyage, assumes his debt, advances him a dollar or so for a farewell spree, and takes his note for $150; and the ship-owner agrees to cash it at the end of six months. Ships have left port responsible for $5,000 home bills, lost four or five men by desertion, been to great trouble and expense to supply other men, and then had no luck and failed to catch a single whale.
Slops- Improvident Jack is apt to leave port short of jackets, trowsers, shirts, tobacco, pipes, letterpaper, and so forth and so on. The ship takes a large quantity of these things along, and supplies them to him at extremely healthy prices, so that sometimes, after a long, unlucky voyage, no wages and heavy home bills and bills for "slops," Jack will return to port very considerably in debt to the ship, and the ship must stand the loss, for an unprofitable voyage squares all such accounts. In squaring up a voyage before the Consul, the ship Captain piles up the slop bills as high as he can get them, though it does not put a single cent in his own pocket; he forgets, in his enthusiasm for his owner's interest, that while he is gouging Jack for the benefit of "the firm," the firm are gouging himself, and Jack too, by the system of Consular assessment I have mentioned above. The captain says to the Consul:
"Put down three pair of boots on this man's slop bill." Jack--"But I didn't have but one pair, Sir." Captain- "Belay! Don't talk back; you might have had 'em if you'd a' wanted 'em. And put him down for eleven pair of socks." Jack--"But I only had two pair, sir." Captain--"Well, ______it, is that any o'my fault? Warn't they there for anybody that wanted 'em? And set him down for two ream of letter paper." Jack--"Why, I never writ a letter whilst I was gone, Sir."
Captain--"Hold your yop! Do you cal'late for me to be responsible for all your dam foolishness? You might have had four ream, if you'd wanted it. And set on ten per cent. for other truck, which I don't recollect what it was."
And so Jack is gouged by the Captain, for the owner's exclusive benefit, and both are fleeced by that same owner with strict impartiality. Perhaps the Captain's "lay" will go East to be sold, and "the firm" will sell at a dollar and a half and then report to him that the market had fallen and they only got a dollar for it. Thus ungrateful are they to the Captain who gouged the seaman on his "slops" for their sole benefit.
Primage--This term obtains in most seaports. No man can tell now what gave it birth, for it is very ancient, and its origin is long ago forgotten. It is a tax of five per cent. on a ship's freight bills, and in old times went to her captain. In our day, however, it goes to the ship-owner with the other freight money (although it forms a separate item in the freight bill), or is turned over to the agent who procured a cargo for a vessel, as his commission. When you engage for the shipment of a lot of freight, you make no mention of this five per cent. primage, but you perfectly understand that it will be added, and you must pay it; therefore, when you are ostensibly shipping at twenty cents, you are really shipping at twenty-one.
Laying off and on--A sailor phrase sufficiently well understood by landsmen to need no explanation.
Ship-keeper--A man who stands guard on a whaler and takes care of the ship when the boats and the crew are off after whales.
Bulling--A term usually applied to the chafing of vessels together when riding at anchor in harbors subject to chopping swells. Some whalers say that one reason why they avoid San Francisco is that this "bulling" process in our Bay is more damaging to their vessels, frequently, than a long voyage.
Gam--The whaleman's phrase for gossip--very common here.
Fid--The whaleman's term for our "smile"--drink. A fid is an instrument which the sailor uses when he splices the main brace on board ship.
Fetched away--A nautical phrase signifying to break loose from fastenings in a storm--such as the fetching away of furniture, rigging, etc.
Skunned--After examining various authors I have discovered that this is a provincial distortion of our word "skinned."
"Captain West" of Holmes's Hole (Vineyard Haven), Martha's Vineyard, a seafaring type sketched by David H. Strother.
Pulled--A term signifying the arraigning of a ship's officers before the Courts by the crew to answer for alleged cruelties practiced upon them on the high seas--such as the "pulling" of captains and mates by the crews of the Mercury, the White Swallow, the Great Republic, etc., in the San Francisco Courts. Here is another reason why, out of the eighty-seven American whaleships that will fish in the North seas this Summer , only about sixteen will venture to touch at San Francisco either going or coming: they find it safer and cheaper to rendezvous and procure supplies here, and save 4,200 miles extra sailing, than to start from, and return to, San Francisco and run the chance of getting "pulled." Honolulu would not amount to anything at all without her whaling trade, and so Jack cannot "pull" his Captain here--no matter what his grievance was, he could not easily get it before these Courts; the lawyer who ventured to take his case would stand a fair chance of being run out of town by the enraged community. But the whaler-man says, "You drop into 'Frisco and great Neptune! your men'll pull you before you get your anchor down--and there you are for three months, on expenses, waiting on them Courts; and they'll go in and swear to the infernalest pack of lies, and the jury'll believe every word of it, and the judge'll read you a sermon that'll take the hair off your head, and then he'll take and jam you into a jail. Oh, no; it don't pay a whaleship to stop at San Francisco."
Hove down--In ports where there are no docks, damaged vessels are hauled out and "hove down" on their sides when repairs to their bottoms are required.
By this time, if you will go back and read the first paragraphs of this letter you may be able to understand them.
Every section of our western hemisphere seems supplied with a system of technicalities, etiquette, and slang, peculiar to itself. The above chapter is intended to give you a somewhat exaggerated idea of the technicalities of conversation in Honolulu--bred from the great whaling interest which centers here, and naturally infused into the vocabulary of the place. Your favorite California similes were bred from the technicalities of surface mining; those of Washoe come from the profound depths of the "main lead," and those of the Honoluluian were born of whalebone, blubber, and the traffic of the seas. Perhaps no single individual would use more than two or three of the nautical and whaling phrases I have quoted, in any one conversation, but you might hear all of them in the course of a week, if you talked with a good many people.
And etiquette varies according to one's surroundings. In the mining camps of California, when a friend tenders you a "smile" or invites you to take a "blister," it is etiquette to say, "Here's hoping your dirt'll pan out gay." In Washoe, when you are requested to "put in a blast," or invited to take "your regular pison," etiquette admonishes you to touch glasses and say, "Here's hoping you'll strike it rich in the lower level." And in Honolulu, when your friend the whaler asks you to take a "fid" with him, it is simple etiquette to say, "Here's eighteen hundred barrels, old salt!" But, "Drink hearty!" is universal. That is the orthodox reply, the world over.
In San Francisco sometimes, if you offend a man, he proposes to take his coat off, and inquires, "Are you on it?" If you are, you can take your coat off, too. In Virginia City, in former times, the insulted party, if he were a true man, would lay his hand gently on his six-shooter and say, "Are you heeled?" But in Honolulu, if Smith offends Jones, Jones asks (with a rising inflection on the last word, which is excessively aggravating), "How much do you weigh?" Smith replies, "Sixteen hundred and forty pound--and you?" "Two ton to a dot, at a quarter past eleven this forenoon -- peel yourself; you're my blubber!". . . .